Opinion: I’m an American stranded in Gaza. Why isn’t the US doing more to bring us home?

Editor’s note: Abood Okal, who spent part of his childhood in Gaza, lives in Massachusetts. The views in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

It started out as a family vacation. Abood Okal, 36, traveled to Gaza in late September with his wife Wafa Abuzayda and their 1-year-old son Yousef to visit relatives they hadn’t seen in years.

Now, they and several other family members — most of whom have US citizenship — are stranded in Gaza, unable to get out and fearful that they could lose their lives at any time as Israeli airstrikes in the region intensify.

Abood Okal with his wife Wafa and infant son Yousef - Courtesy Abood Okal
Abood Okal with his wife Wafa and infant son Yousef - Courtesy Abood Okal

Okal, a cancer researcher for a Massachusetts pharmaceutical company, is one of about 500 to 600 dual nationals and US permanent residents trapped in Gaza and hoping to be evacuated or to be allowed to exit Gaza by crossing the border into Egypt.

For decades, his family’s home has been in northern Gaza, but the constant bombardment, and Israeli orders to evacuate, led them to flee. Now a couple dozen family and friends are holed up in a borrowed house in southern Gaza, hoping to make their way across the Egyptian border at the first opportunity.

Each day, Okal faces the challenge of figuring out how to find food for his extended family amid dwindling provisions available at local shops in southern Gaza, while navigating streets rendered all but impassable after being struck by Israeli bombs.

He says that never far from mind is the risk of fresh shelling that could strike his household at any time, as Israel continues a bombing campaign in Gaza that already has claimed thousands of lives, according to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza. He also worries about a possible Israeli invasion, which he fears could make it even harder for his family to get to Egypt.

The brutal Hamas attacks on October 7 precipitated an Israeli military response, with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) ordering Gazans to relocate to the South as it bombarded suspected Hamas strongholds and prepared for a possible ground invasion.

Okal says he reaches out to the State Department every day looking for news about a plan for when Palestinian Americans like him will be evacuated. Days into his prolonged Gaza stay, he says, he has received no clear guidance from US officials.

Meanwhile, the White House said this week that it’s considering contingency plans to evacuate Americans from the Middle East. White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the US is “thinking through a broad range of contingencies and possibilities, and certainly evacuations are one of those things. We’re not at the point of execution right now.”

Kirby added that “obviously a prime focus for us is the several hundred Americans that we know are there.”

Okal spoke by phone with CNN Opinion editor Stephanie Griffith. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

CNN: What actually took you to Gaza at this point in time?

Okal: We left our home in Massachusetts on September 25 for what was supposed to be one month of vacation. We spent the first week of our trip in the West Bank, and then we went to Gaza for what was supposed to be another two weeks of vacation. Then we were supposed to spend another week visiting different cities in Israel and the West Bank because we wanted to explore some of the tourist areas and cities.

My wife and I have a 1-year-old. We hadn’t been to Gaza for almost six years. We said, okay, let’s go visit some relatives. We said, we should introduce our son to his cousins, uncles and aunts. We were in Gaza for about a week when the [bombing] started, and we’ve been stranded here ever since.

CNN: So several days into what was supposed to be your family vacation, the Israeli bombing of Gaza started?

Okal: Yes, when the war started on that Saturday, my wife and I immediately jumped on the phone with the State Department trying to figure out what our best options were to leave. We wanted to get out as soon as possible to protect our lives, but also for our son’s sake — we didn’t want him to live through the trauma. And so, my wife immediately packed our stuff and went to her parents’ house — the area where they live is a little bit safer than where my parents’ house is, where we had been staying.

We were at my wife’s parents house a couple of days into the war when there was an airstrike about 100 feet from my parents’ house. It basically knocked all the doors out of their frame and shattered glass everywhere. That’s when my parents joined me and my wife at her parents’ house. We all huddled together until we had to leave northern Gaza and head south. As a family, we’ve decided we would live together or die together.

CNN: Tell me about your family in the region. Who are they, and where are they?

Half of us — or half of my siblings — are in the US and the other half are actually in Palestine. We are a family of eight. Four boys, four girls and we’re also split equally in half of those who are in Gaza versus those that are outside of Gaza. A brother and a sister in the US happen to be in New Jersey. And then my other older sister, she’s actually in Ramallah in the West Bank. That’s part of why we were visiting the West Bank at the beginning of our trip. And then I have two brothers and two sisters that live in Gaza.

My parents are also dual citizens just like their kids. My parents actually live in northern Gaza. And my wife’s parents are between northern Gaza and Gaza City itself. But to be clear: We all fled northern Gaza not just because of the bombings, but because the IDF announced that all residents of Gaza City must immediately move south of Gaza Valley — otherwise, they might be killed during the bombing campaign.

CNN: Is everybody in your family considering leaving Gaza now and coming to the US? 

Okal: That’s the plan. I think anyone who has an opportunity to leave will do so, because of the magnitude of damage and suffering that we’re seeing, which is just unthinkable. And so far, we’ve only lived through phase one [of Israeli assaults on Gaza.] Based on what we hear from news reports, the Israeli military’s phase two will be its ground invasion. Presumably, that will only make things worse.

CNN: After the explosion near your parents’ home in northern Gaza, you succeeded in calling the State Department. And what did they tell you?

Okal: The very first few hours they said it’s a very dynamic and fluid situation and that they didn’t have any idea about what’s really happening. But they took our passport numbers, phone numbers, email addresses and made us register through the State Department’s STEP program, which kind of tracks you if you’re traveling overseas for urgent notification. So, we did all that and then we called again and again. We were told each time that there was no new information.

Ever since, we call every single day, not missing even a single day. On certain days, I have called four or five different times. Sometimes we have switched between calling the US embassy in Jerusalem and the embassy in Cairo. As the days went on, the State Department in Washington, DC, even got involved. Now there are so many numbers for us to track. We call all of them all the time. All they tell us is, “The situation is dynamic. Stay as safe as you can. We’re working on an evacuation plan.”

Early in the war, we were told by the State Department: If you can make it to the crossing, and you think it’s safe, go there. And you should be able to cross into Egypt. On Saturday, they told us that the Rafah crossing would be open and that we should head there if we deem it to be safe to do so. Nothing happened.

It was the third time that based on what the State Department told us — we spent eight to 10 hours standing outside in the heat — nothing happened. And while we were waiting there, we all would call the State Department, we would call the embassy in Cairo. And all they would say is, “We don’t have any information.”

Listen, we live in northern Gaza. We were not asking for a full-fledged, secure path from Gaza City in the North all the way to the South. We were willing to take that risk. All we want is the guarantee that once we make it to the Egyptian border, we will be able to cross. Yet, nobody in the State Department was able to confirm that for us.

Luckily, where we’re staying right now is less than 10 minutes from the Egyptian border. We could be there in minutes. But like I said, we were told three times since we’ve been here in southern Gaza to go to the border by the State Department and every single time, we were not able to cross, despite spending all day there.

CNN: That must be immensely frustrating. You’ve said you have the impression that there’s a greater level of urgency in getting US citizens or dual nationals out of Israel, compared to what the US government is doing for Palestinian Americans.

Okal: No doubt about it. We see firsthand the amount of logistics that are being put in place to get Americans out of Israel, even though I don’t think anyone would disagree that the amount of risk exposure for Americans in Gaza is much greater than for American citizens in Israel.

CNN:. To what do you attribute the different treatment?

Okal: I don’t have an explanation for that. I can try to postulate, and it certainly would drive me down a path that I would not like to believe that an American would be treated differently from another American just based on where they are located. So, I still give the benefit of the doubt that there isn’t any type of discriminatory treatment for an American in Gaza versus an American in Israel. But the reality is we see that there is a different level of effort invested in extracting an American citizen out of Israel compared to Gaza.

CNN: You said you’ve been monitoring news sources regarding updates on the border crossing. What news sources are those? 

Okal: In the past 10 days, I would say since everybody started heading south, there is a complete lack of news. The networks are down for both power and internet. We haven’t had internet where we’re staying for the last several days because the network has been blown out. So we rely on cell phone signals, basically internet via the cell phone provider because we have this US number that we use as roaming.

At the place where we are staying, we have power for just about an hour or two using solar panels. We’re fortunate enough to have that where we’re staying so we can charge our devices. That’s how we get our news — from our phones.

Also, one of my very best friends in the US lives a mile away from us [in Massachusetts]. We used to work together in Cambridge. He follows the news about this region. I told him, “Hey, if there’s anything about the border crossing or about a ground invasion, then please text me right away. Because it takes time for us to get the news here. It’s kind of ironic that I’m getting my news about Gaza out of Massachusetts.

CNN: Some of that news, as you say, deals with the potential for a ground invasion by Israel. How concerned are you about that? 

Okal: That’s my nightmare. I think it’s going to be nasty and it’s going to be very destructive, based on what the Israeli military spokespeople are saying. We’re terrified because where my parents were before we fled south was an area that’s near the northeastern border of Gaza. So, in a matter of minutes of a ground invasion, the tanks would be rolling next to where my parents’ homes are. We’re terrified because we know that our lives will be at even a greater risk.

That’s part of why we’re trying to exit Gaza as fast as possible. We’re trying to flee as fast as we can while we still can — before the invasion starts. That is when curfews will happen. You literally wouldn’t be able to move depending on where you are moving. I probably wouldn’t be able to even step outside right now to make this phone call. The invasion will be a huge nightmare if we are still in Gaza when it starts.

CNN: What is the house that you’re living in now? How did you find it? I mean, it sounded like mission impossible when Israel ordered more than a million Gazans to leave the North and go south.

Okal: Basically, we were lucky, because this house belongs to a friend of my wife’s dad — basically a friend of a friend of a friend. They’re out of town and they said, yes, you’re welcome to stay at it. The keys are with the neighbors.

So, we came and stayed here. Right now, we’re a total of 40 people. My family makes up 25 people: basically myself, my wife and our son, her parents, my parents, my brother, his wife and his twin daughters, my sister and her three children, my wife’s two uncles and their families.

It’s kind of like my entire immediate and closest circle of family because everyone’s fleeing for their lives. And we’re huddled on the first floor. Then on the second floor, the owners of the house have their relatives that are escaping northern Gaza. So, 40 people in total, in a single-family home.

CNN: What do you think is going to become of Gaza?

Okal: I don’t know, but it already is no longer the Gaza that I knew before leaving 17 years ago and moving to the US. Entire neighborhoods in the center of Gaza City have been taken out. There were major landmarks that everybody would know are gone. You’re talking about 1.1 million people who have fled south. My parents have the feeling — and my wife’s parents do as well — that they will never see their homes again, even though it’s about a 10-mile drive north of here. I won’t be going back, and I can’t imagine that anyone I know will be back. The amount of destruction there is just unthinkable.

CNN: And all 25 of your relatives are going to try to get the State Department to arrange their passage into Egypt?

Okal: We wish. Not all of them are American citizens. We’ve been told by the State Department transit will be allowed for Americans and their immediate relatives, meaning spouse and children if they’re not American. That’s the heartbreaking part: that while we’re trying as hard as we can to leave, we know we will be leaving family and loved ones behind.

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